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IDEAS

Essay: 50 years after ‘Operation Exodus,' racial trauma remains

In the mid 1960s, black parents in Boston sent their children to white schools in “Operation Exodus,” an attempt to get an equal education for their children. Fifty years later, parents are still demanding changes to the city’s educational system.

Operation Exodus, a voluntary busing program, took students from overcrowded black schools to predominantly white schools with vacant seats.
Operation Exodus, a voluntary busing program, took students from overcrowded black schools to predominantly white schools with vacant seats.William Ryerson/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

During the 1960s, race riots plagued much of the country. Boston had a self-congratulatory air because its black communities exercised restraint while other cities burned. Everything changed the summer of 1967, when I was 7 years old. I watched the news report of a crowd at the Welfare Office, cursing and hurling rocks at the police. Suddenly someone pounded on the front door. My uncle unlatched the deadbolt, and there stood my dad, Robert, dressed in black. His speech was halting: “Come on; let’s go beat up some whiteys.” My uncle declined, and I spent that night listening for a floorboard to squeak upon Dad’s return.

The rioting carried on for three days, and when the smoke cleared, Blue Hill Avenue looked like a war zone — buildings and storefronts were charred and the street was littered with debris. I wondered, was Dad partly responsible for the devastation? Years passed before I knew of the depth of his trauma, grief, and rage.

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In a 1968 speech titled “The Other America,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked, “in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” I also believe that a riot is the language of the unseen and unhealed.

Throughout the 1960s, the institutionalized racism we faced was demoralizing and traumatizing. In our schools, the teachers seemed disinterested, and our textbooks were old and tattered. Several kids sat on the floor hoping that somebody would be absent the next day so they’d have a seat and a desk. The School Committee refused to acknowledge the educational inequality. The black parents persevered until one day they’d had enough and rebelled.

Inspiration came on April 22, 1965, when King led a civil rights march in Boston. It culminated in a racially diverse group of over 22,000 people gathered on the Boston Common. King proclaimed, “This is not a battle of white people against black people, it is a struggle between the forces of justice and injustice.” The march was galvanizing for the black community.

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Our parents believed the fight for equal education was a fight for freedom. They discovered an enrollment policy in Boston that allowed children to attend any school where there was an open seat. The voluntary busing program, Operation Exodus, was born. It began in September 1965 with 250 students. Donor funds paid for rented buses to transport the students. My parents enrolled me, my sister Stephanie, and brother Kwame in an all-white school in North Dorchester.

Sheila Wise Rowe, her brother Kwame, and sister Stephanie all participated in Operation Exodus and were bused to a predominately white school in Dorchester.
Sheila Wise Rowe, her brother Kwame, and sister Stephanie all participated in Operation Exodus and were bused to a predominately white school in Dorchester. Sheila Wise Rowe

On the first day, a yellow school bus took more than 30 of us to the promised land. Kwame took a seat in the back of the bus, and I sat next to Stephanie in the front with my wide eyes fixed forward. When we arrived at the school, I saw white mothers dropping off their kids. There were no protest signs or cursing. Some mothers glared at us, and others shook their heads in disgust. At the entrance stood Dr. Hurley, a round white woman wearing reddish lipstick and no smile. My teacher introduced me to my first-grade classmates, but all I saw was 25 white faces with their eyes glued on me.

During that week, Kwame’s teacher repeatedly called him Tyrone. His classmates mocked him during recess. They poked out their bottom lip, so it covered their top lip and chanted, “Look, nigga lips.” One day, Stephanie’s teacher asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Stephanie raised her hand and when called on, she stood proudly and proclaimed, “When I grow up, I want to be a teacher.” The teacher snorted, “That won’t happen. They won’t hire a nigger as a teacher.” Stephanie slumped down in her chair; she and her dreams were irrelevant to the teacher.

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I was a timid child who performed well on tests but was often accused of cheating. The suspicion was not limited to academics. One day my classmate Timmy tripped over his own feet. However, he cried out, “Sheila tripped me!” My teacher yelled: “Sheila, get up here, up in front of the class and apologize!” Through heaving sobs, I apologized for something I didn’t do.

In school, I tried to fit in and feel at home in my own body. Ultimately, I learned it was better to go along to get along and stay quiet. So I denied my pain, anger, and fear about the riot and my schooling. My mind complied, but my body didn’t bear the stress well. I had physical symptoms — hives, frequent ear infections, and headaches. Some days I got a reprieve and was kept home. Nevertheless, I held onto a shred of hope and prayed that one day I’d be accepted. Operation Exodus continued but saw a decline in donor funding and could no longer rent the buses. Soon Operation Exodus folded, and by 1974, the turbulent court-ordered busing era began in Boston.

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Assessments of the educational experiences of Operation Exodus students have been mostly positive. However, they do not adequately reflect the emotional toll it had. It has taken many years for me to heal from the racial trauma and internalized shame I carried. The experience hijacked my voice. I’ve fought to reclaim it. Almost 50 years later, racism is still trumpeted from the highest echelons of power, written on bathroom stalls and now border walls. There are anti-racism protests, and inner cities still burn. The Boston School system is far more segregated; two-thirds of its schools are almost 90 percent students of color. While culturally responsive teaching practices attempt to address racism and implicit bias, the quality of education across the city remains uneven. But once again, our communities of color are reclaiming their voices and demanding a systemic overhaul.

Adapted from “Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience.” Rowe is a writer and trauma counselor based in Greater Boston. The Ideas section welcomes submissions of personal essays. Please send submissions to ideas@globe.com.